WCUB 2017 Career Satisfaction Workshop: How do I find the right career for me?

By HaYeun Ji, MS

Image credits: HaYeun Ji









































The What Can You Be with a PhD? (WCUB) Symposium this year attracted hundreds of graduate students and professionals all over the city who were keen to learn more about various career options they could choose from. It was clear from this year’s event that a PhD career path is not necessarily a straight road to academia with a small byway for non-academic jobs, but rather a road with multiple large branches. Given a variety of options, many PhDs become overwhelmed with the questions: How do I decide which career is right for me? And how do I know if I will be happy and satisfied with this career? Matthias Birk, an adjunct professor at NYU Wagner School, gave a very inspiring workshop at WCUB to help answer these questions.

Professor Birk opened his workshop with a witty disclaimer that this workshop will not give anyone a definite answer as to what their perfect job is. Using humor, funny anecdotes, and group exercises, Dr. Birk cited his own experiences with career searching to help the audience start off their own search. He also presented something very unique — a formula — to explain that “the key” to happiness that fits all is elusive.  

The happiness formula, which was published in the book Authentic Happiness by psychologist Martin Seligman, is as follows1:

H = S + C + V

H = (50%) + (10%) + (40%)

  • H is the level of happiness; 100%
  • S is the biological set point, or individual baseline; 50%
  • C is the condition, or external factor; 10%
  • V includes voluntary behaviors and mindsets, or internal factor; 40%

Professor Birk pointed out that contrary to what many people believe, the external factor matters very little in defining how happy you are. Here, the external factor could be your financial status, living condition, job title, or how other people judge you to be. He then described a very interesting study, which bases on the Authentic Happiness Inventory database2, that when organized according to the zip codes to show which region has the least happy people, the results indicate it to be midtown Manhattan, a place where some of the richest people in the country live.

While this is depressing news, Professor Birk pointed out that, on the bright side, this also reveals that at least 40% of our happiness is based on our actions and choices, which we can change!

So what are the questions we need to ask to change our mindset to be happy? To answer this, Professor Birk explained the three pillars of career satisfaction:

  • What matters Values
  • What we love doing Joys/Passion
  • What we are good at Strengths

The audience then got a chance to get together as a group to fill out an interactive worksheet and discuss how these three pillars are shaped for each one of us. For instance, a list of values, selected by the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Research center3, was given and everyone was asked to select their 10 most important values, and draw a radar chart to show how much we live those values at the time (of this workshop).

This exercise turned out to be a very fun and engaging experience; the room was filled with active conversations and self-evaluations were shared at the end. Interestingly, a lot of people had ‘humor and fun’ as one of their top 10 values, something that we often do not pay enough attention to while considering a job. This also conveys the important message that Professor Birk was trying to explain – our happiness has a lot to do with our internal factors!

In the context of finding and evaluating our joy, Professor Birk suggested we ask ourselves questions such as:

  • What kind of work energizes me?
  • Would I do this just for the sake of doing it?
  • What would make me say, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!”

For more details on finding your own strength, Professor Birk recommended reading a book titled Strength Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath4.

Professor Birk concluded with recommending a Harvard Business Review article “How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career” by Herminia Ibarra5, which outlines four key factors for a successful career shift:

  • Get to know yourself — What are your values, joy, and strength?
  • Craft experiments — Think about unexpected values or variables that can show up in the new job
  • Develop new connections — Find others in an entirely different field; it helps think outside of the current perspective
  • Working identity — Who are you fundamentally? Active reflection of yourself makes you more conscious about your choices and actions.

Overall, the workshop was very entertaining and informative at the same time. It provided the audience an opportunity and a guideline to better reflect on what their values, joys, and strengths are. If the other sessions at the WCUB symposium provided PhDs with an insight about different career options, the career satisfaction workshop by Professor Matthias Birk educated us on how to weigh those career options at a personal level.  

What Can You Be With a PhD? Something that makes YOU happy!  


  1. Seligman, Martin EP. Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Simon and Schuster, 2004.
  2. Senior, Jennifer. “Some dark thoughts on happiness.” New York Magazine 23 (2006).
  3. University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness Research Center. https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/home
  4. Rath, Tom. StrengthsFinder 2.0. Simon and Schuster, 2007.
  5. Ibarra, Herminia. “How to stay stuck in the wrong career.” Harvard Business Review 80.12 (2002): 40-7.

Author: HaYeun Ji, MS, PhD student, Biomedical Engineering, Columbia University hj2394@columbia.edu

Editor: Soumyadeep Mukherjee


Keywords: career satisfaction, happiness, career selection